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Please Touch The Art: Private Information, Public Settings

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski

Since 1994 we have collaborated on a variety of new media arts projects that incorporate interactivity and play as strategies for engaging with the social and political contradictions inherent in contemporary society. Audience engagement is a vital element in our interactive artworks. We sometimes think of our work as performance art, were the artist is not physically present; the actions of the performer are programmed into the work, with the viewers’ response completing the piece. We have closely observed how viewers interact with our work, and have drawn on these observations in the creation of each subsequent piece. Some works have taken the form of playful interactive kiosk installations, that allow an individual visitor to engage the work in a private way in a public setting, their responses becoming a central part of the creative experience for example the ‘User Unfriendly Interface’, first shown at Performance Space, Sydney in 1996.

Fig 1: User Unfriendly Interface 1996

Some works we have made encourage the participant to reveal themselves through their engagement with the work, personal information being transmitted or stored for retrieval in some way, with multiple participants playing a collaborative role with the artists by completing the artwork through their accumulated responses.

In the 'Fuzzy Love Dating Database', a kiosk and web work first exhibited at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin in 1997. People voluntarily photographed themselves and answered a series of questions as a kind of entry fee allowing access to the database of previous respondents, however access was limited to searching through responses to more obscure questions like 'what is your favorite bodily fluid?', or ‘what is your pet name?’ Viewers could print out a list of possible dating partners for future contact.

Fig 2: FuzzyLove Dating Database 1997

Since 1999 we have been working with the programmer Adam Hinshaw. We produce new hybrid artforms by incorporating various types of game play into our work, dramatically recontextualising the conventions of digital game interfaces and their action-driven narratives. With Dream Kitchen we created playful interfaces for stop motion animations, where viewers manipulate scanned everyday objects with engaging results. Ball-point pens, power cables and household rubbish are all uncannily transformed into potential threats, and security devices are contained within even the most banal domestic fixtures (Douglas 2003).

The play begins in a very clean household kitchen and then takes us to those areas where the moral cleansers can't reach. Beneath the surface runs a parallel interior zone populated with inspirited objects. This subterranean zone could be interpreted in many ways. A catalogue of dread, a cabinet of memories, an archive of fantasies. Each visit to the underworld causes the clean kitchen to degrade, ultimately becoming an obscene domestic science experiment.

Fig 3: Dream Kitchen image 2000

Trace was a multimedia installation exploring biometrics, the practice of collecting physical data from the public for the purpose of future identification. The work was commissioned and exhibited at the State Records Centre, Sydney for three months from August 2002 to February 2003. At the entrance to the installation, viewers engaged with a biometric station and were encouraged to register themselves, using palm scans, iris scans and voice analysis. This referred to the voluntary processes to which we submit that reinforce our identity as valid citizens. When the visitor ventured further into the exhibition, an involuntary image capture was triggered, followed by a profiling process, blending the biometric data with the captured images. Viewers could access these images from a database of all previous exhibition visitors. We also collected smells from people on individual medical swabs as they entered the museum on the opening night, creating an archive of odours.

Fig 4: Trace image 2002

In Floating Territories we used play as a springboard for exploring real and virtual territory. The work was created for ISEA2004, part of which took place on a ferry which traveled for three days on the Baltic Sea between Helsinki, Finland, Stockholm, Sweden and Tallin, Estonia. We produced a set of printed swipe cards that acted as a social card game, the cards were distributed with the 600 participants’ boarding passes. The cards assigned passengers a tribal allegiance, with each tribe represented by it's own distinctive iconography and it's own role and goals:

1 Escape       Flee from the invading force
2 Defend       Repel the invading force
3 Petition       sway opinion toward your own position
4 Colonise     Grab the unprotected territory
5 Wander       You acknowledge no border
6 Converge   Meet on safe ground

Fig 5: Escape Card 2004

Fig 6: Colonise Card 2004

Swiping one’s card at a console on the boat activated a game session and set up different play scenarios depending on the card. Each game is a variation on a territory acquisition and defense strategy game. The project playfully engaged with serious social issues, placing participants in the arbitrary position of being a defender of territory, a coloniser, a nomad, etc. and then links that play to a real world map of accumulated participant’s migration histories.

Fig 7: Stills from Defend 2004

We continued to develop and build on the mapping module from Floating Territories to produce Seeker where mapping and data visualisation techniques are used to create poetic visual interpretations of user input that link the viewer’s personal migration history to wider issues of refuge, conflict commodities and the interconnecting web of global economic forces. Dynamic (i.e. animated and interactive) data visualisation is one of the genuinely new cultural forms enabled by computing and the database is a construct onto which we can project our understanding of culture (Manovich 2002).

Fig 8: Seeker, Artspace 2006

The Seeker installation consists of three large projections with an interactive touch screen component. Viewers can drag and drop nodes representing episodes of their own personal family migration history onto a global map. Contributing a history triggers an abstract animated visualisation of all previous visitors’ pathways. Seeker enables the viewers to engage with statistics through poetic, animated sequences that represent information about economics, natural resources, human populations and migration flows. The statistics were gleaned from various sources and then translated into animated curves looping over desert landscapes projected onto large screens. Representing statistics in this creative way allows the viewer time to contemplate the imagery while taking in the information.

The mapping interface is direct and simple and so precludes the capture of complex data such as stories, but interestingly when we have shown this mapping module in several public exhibitions what happens is people do talk about events related to their family, even turning to strangers and relating some story or tidbit of info about their family. To us, the fact of this kind of casual/ephemeral relating to other audience members is as important as the capturing and archiving of the actual stories.

The viewers’ personal data is re-presented, as a series of animated semi circles which also build up, however this time rather than showing the geographic relationship between each node in the family history it shows the relative distance each generation travels as well as identifying the mother’s and father’s side of the family. This abstraction of the data unfolds in a hypnotic, meditative way. Seeker belongs to the emergent genre of database artworks that draw from the broader media, positioning the viewer within the web of connections through which the forces of politics, economics and science operate. (Finegan 2007)

Fig 9: Seeker Artspace 2006

The second screen in the installation shows satellite imagery of countries people are attempting to leave and countries people are attempting to get too. We collaborated with Paul Keller from the Kein Mensch ist Illegal group in Germany to collect this news feed about refugees or asylum seekers dying while attempting to travel from one country to another.

The third screen in the installation shows animations visualising different data sets and layered over landscape stills that we shot in Australia, Kenya and India. The Austrialian landscapes were taken at Lake Mungo the site of where evidence was discovered that indigenous people lived in communities and were performing cultural rites like ritual burials in Australia over forty thousand years ago. The Kenyan images are from Olorgesailie, near Nairobi, which is the site of another ancient lake. Scientists working there have found skull fragments from an early, tool-making human that lived more than 900,000 years ago, perhaps filling an important gap in the fossil record.

The data animations include information about conflict resources. For example the metal Tantalum, which is used in the manufacture of pin capacitors for devices such as computers and mobile phones. This metal is found in the Congo and it’s existence there has been blamed for playing a part in extending the recent civil war, which has displaced millions of people. We use the same visual technique of the slowly evolving semi circles to make linkages between events in a non quantified way, such as the tantalum example, where there is a documented link between the demand for the resource and the income that it generates with the prolonged war and immense disruption this has caused.
Over time the three screens begin a silent, edgy conversation with one another as the viewer makes connections between issues of personal migration, conflict resources and the way human displacement in represented in the global media. Seeker won an Award of Distinction at the prestigious Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria 2007.

Seeker not only traces the global movement of people and resources, but also illustrates the ongoing process of translation from the physical to the virtual in the way we perceive the world. Translation implies a desire to communicate; each person who engages with Seeker will be prompted to consider what is lost and what is gained, what is repressed and what is discovered in this process. (Trigg 2006)


Douglas, A. Mesh Issue no16 p.69, 2003 Experimenta. Review of Dream Kitchen.

Finegan, A. 2007 databases: recombinant interactives.  Artlink vol 27 #3 p.40

Fiona Trigg, CC2006 Catalogue Essay Pub ACMI & NGV

Manovich, L 2002, Data visualisation as new abstraction and anti-sublime. <> last accessed 30/08/2007.

Originally presented at iArt Sympsium, COFA, March 2007

Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski are media artists whose long-term collaboration has produced a variety of screen-based installations.